What’s so funny about newspapers? Read this.
Catch the buzz over John Oliver's takedown of the newspaper industry
August 15, 2016
By the editors of Media Life
This article is part of a Media Life series “Reinventing the American Newspaper.” Click here to read other stories in the series.
Now, as if things were not bad enough for newspapers, the industry has suddenly become the punching bag of media, laughed at for its very public fumbles, such as the clown show at the once-proud Tribune Co., now calling itself tronc.
You can joke about billboard salesmen. You can toss digs at radio, TV for that matter. Not newspapers. Newspapers are serious, or were until now.
But all last week all media people seemed to talk about was comedian John Oliver’s hysterical 19-minute riff on the sad state of the newspaper industry in which reporting jobs are being cut, workloads increased, and real journalism shoved aside for fluffery.
All this, Oliver points out, is taking place at the hands of a new breed of owners whose grasp of the public interest is on a par with that of cemetery plot salesmen.
And if that weren’t enough, the chatter got a further lift when the Newspaper Association of America challenged Oliver’s riff.
Unfair, it said, petty.
NAA president David Chavern faulted Oliver for not offering solutions to what ails newspapers. ”Whatever you think of the name ‘tronc’ and that company’s announced growth strategy, at least they are trying new things.’”
Chavern got a quick comeuppance.
One headline, in a British publication, termed his comments “flaccid.”
Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan offered this advice to Charvern, whom she noted was not a “newspaper guy” but a recruit from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
“When someone hilariously and poignantly celebrates the industry that you are paid to defend and protect, you ought to laugh at the funny parts and then simply say ‘thank you.’
“Or maybe nothing at all.”
But the most spot-on criticism came as a tweet from Washington Post editor Marty Baron: “Newspaper Association of America statement re @iamjohnoliver show could not be more clueless.”
Note to readers: Baron led the Boston Globe in its Pulitzer Prize winning expose of the Catholic Church’s coverup of sex abuses by priests that became the basis for the Academy Award winning movie “Spotlight.”
Baron is a newspaper guy.
Chavern’s blunder, and it’s a blunder made by so many media trade associations, is to seek out the easy route, which is to attempt to paint over industry problems with upbeat PR releases and planted news stories talking up their industry.
It never works, and in this case it’s an outright disservice to the newspaper industry.
The fact is, newspapers have a wonderful story to tell, but it’s not being told well, if at all.
First, newspapers have the best audience any medium could ever ask for—the wealthiest, the best educated and the people who have the biggest stake in their communities.
Two, newspapers are very effective advertising vehicles. They get people off their couches and into stores and spending money. We’re talking print newspapers here.
The problem is that newspapers do a terrible job of selling themselves to media buyers and advertisers.
They always have.
The litany of complaints might seem endless, from complicated to incomprehensible rate cards to in-the-dark sales staffs to the sheer number of hours it takes to place one ad in one newspaper.
Too many newspapers also do a poor job of showing advertisers they can deliver results. (You ran the ad. You go figure out whether it worked.)
That’s opened the way for digital sellers and everyone else, for that matter, to take business away from newspapers. No wonder the industry has shrunk from $50 billion a decade ago to $19 billion today.
The newspaper industry can be saved if it can be saved from itself–and from the likes of the folks at tronc.
So here’s a real job for the NAA and Chavern: Go out and show newspapers that they can compete with digital, and show them how. Teach them the value of what they have to sell. Show them how to sell it.
Explain that their world has changed, and they’re going to have to change with it.
Where you find a newspaper that’s doing things right, and there’s a number of them–Dallas comes to mind–encourage other papers to follow their lead.
That’s going to be a big job. We are talking about changing the culture of an industry that long enjoyed the privileges of monopoly.
That work should be the prime mission of the NAA. If it can’t do that, or refuses to take on the challenge, it should disband.
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